Frank Gutch Jr: I Have Seen the Future and It Wasn’t This…..
Not the political future, which has turned out bad enough, but the music future which is floundering. I saw it going awry in 1992 when I left the retail record business as it morphed to a “music industry” I never recognized. I tried to make sense of it then, wondering why the decisions being made by not just major labels but by what then was becoming an entertainment conglomerate were so unerringly ridiculous. I need to watch the documentary on Tower Records, All Things Must Pass, in detail. I need to revisit the individual instances which brought down radio, records and everything else entertainment around our ears. I need to understand who was in power, if indeed anyone was, and who made the monumental mistakes which gave us the chaos we now have.
You see, I had a dream last night and just awoke from it with a futuristic view of what is and what was but very little in between. I was selling records, had ten brand new Warner Brothers 45s in my hand, and was walking around this incredibly huge building with rooms which served no real sense or purpose filled with people who evidently had purpose or they would not have been there. I was searching for the Warner Brothers salesman because I had come up with a way to sell 45s (and records and compact discs and DVDs) but not to a mass audience. The future, I realized, was in custom pressing and printing. The sleeves of the 45s were generic but I had this vision. No 45 left behind. Customized picture sleeves. Limited editions. Marketing not only the music but the artists. It would work! I knew it. But I could not find anyone to pitch.
I did find a room full of what looked like record salesmen, all lined up at work stations and working on computers but working alone and friendly enough, just not really understanding what they were doing other than creating sales figures. I found a huge room of record executives sitting in a large conference room listening to presentations by other record executives but to no purpose. I ran across what I assume were actual record store employees though there were no customers I could find. The employees were young and plugged into the future, too, but no one was listening. Everyone was talking. No one was listening.
Did anyone care? I couldn’t find anyone. Those ten 45s turned to two. I had lost eight and had no idea where. The rooms morphed into architectural wonders full of nothing for people who could afford nothing and indeed were happy to pay. Rooms full of pretentious people, monied people, the people I loved to hate in my youth. The ones who built “boxes, on the hilllside, little boxes made of ticky tacky” and maybe that doesn’t mean much to you but it meant a hell of a lot to this kid who was growing up in a small logging town at the base of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Did you know that Malvina Reynolds wrote that song? I didn’t. Not at first. I first heard the Pete Seeger version and embraced it as Seeger’s and a handful of years later realized the mistake and regretted it. Seeger surely did not need the publicity. Seeger was huge, though you would not know it by the way he dressed. Off-the-shelf short-sleeved shirts and off-the-rack trousers and no sense of fashion. But he knew a meaningful song when he heard one.
The “music industry” was in such chaos, and this is the business I knew and not the one I dreamed, that all logic was slowly being destroyed. Were you there? Did you hear the record company execs explain why compact discs were so expensive but would not stay that way because, after all, competition. Of course, when it came time to make adjustments, they had answers. We have to keep the prices high because… endless explanations from people who prided themselves on record profits while sales plummeted. Digital? We don’t accept it. Competition? The competition is between artists, not labels. Retail? Why bother? If people want the music, they will come to us.
You want to know why the labels became dinosaurs? They started pulling credit from stores and chains based upon sales. At one time, Tower and Peaches and Sam Sam The Record Man and Sam Goody’s and The Wherehouse shared the advertising and credit pool alongside small mom and pop operations such as The Music Millennium in Portland and Rather Ripped in San Francisco and Licorice Pizza in L.A. At some point, however, the labels began cheating— selling to the largest stores at a much much lower price and giving them longer lines of credit. What? You thought Tower and Peaches actually owned the millions of dollars worth of records which stocked their stores? God forbid! Well, at one point, I am sure they did, to a large degree. But as the record business grew, credit became a way of growing the business (see how that long tail gets eaten?) and voila! It’s a different ball game.
The truth is that toward the end of Tower’s reign, Tower was selling records for less than many small chains or independent stores could purchase them. And they were given longer and longer periods of time to pay the bills. Whereas Standard Records & Hi-Fi in Seattle refused to play the credit game, they not only payed a much higher price per record but paid on a regular retail schedule; i.e., within a week or so of purchase. Tower, I am sure, was on what I would say was a six-month payment schedule. They paid, until the end when they could no longer, for their records 180 days down the line. Probably not for every label, but for the majors. And it wasn’t necessarily across the board. The majors were well adept at “programs” which featured certain titles at a huge discount. Programs to which not all chains or stores were privy.
I saw the opposite side of that dream on a regular basis. My initiation was as a music junkie and whereas the beginning found most people I knew buying 45s at Thompson’s Record Mart in Eugene and, later, albums at the Bon Marche, I would soon be stopping by the cubbyhole Chrystalship on 13th in Eugene and, later, The House of Records on 11th. Chrystalship would become a serious player after they moved to Portland and The House of Records would remain The House of Records (They are still in their third location just down the street from the University of Oregon campus). I cut my teeth there, dealing with the first actual record and radio station salesmen. It wasn’t business. It was through the looking glass. My first contacts were both positive and negative. Rock and Roll as an industry was just starting to amp up back in ’71 and by the time I made it to L.A. in ’74, it was picking up steam, and fast.
I scored my first job at a porn theater running projector and playing music for dancers. Naturally, the main component was an eight-track. Then it was on to Licorice Pizza and my first legitimate job in music. It was confusing at first, the split personalities attempting to understand the quirks of cutouts and bargain bins while working a bona fide retail outlet, but it was an education I will never lose. I learned that the record business itself is and always has been a cesspool and, as in all business, it is not about the product (in this case, music) but about sales figures.
I finally ended up in San Diego with LP and a record store started with good friend Lance Anderson (Scratching the Records), then Seattle with Peaches Records. I always thought it was myself but it felt like the business was always in some kind of trouble and fighting with itself. Airpockets surrounded me wherever I went like I was flying a plane with one engine and that one struggling. Nothing big. Nothing you could really identify. Just airpockets— mild turbulence.
You have to understand that my parents were nothing if not ethical. My father was the most honorable man I ever knew— responsibility and trust the core. His handshake was his word and he proved it more than once. I lived that way as much as I could but the rest of the world I was to find was not his world. When I began working in records, I found that cesspool mentioned earlier. I would repeat that Hunter S. Thompson phrase but you, I am sure, have heard it all to many times and too often.
I don’t think I could have chosen a less ethical area in which to work except Law. The whole profession is based upon lack of ethics, unlike the music business which just uses them for profit. Not ethics. Lack of ethics. Have you ever wondered why the major labels normally have a whole floor devoted to lawyers? In any business, it should be a red flag. Why, some corporations have whole buildings full of lawyers.
I sometimes wonder about the airpockets. Mostly when I have stopped drinking coffee. I have stopped drinking coffee. For awhile. I think mostly my airpockets have been the albums which should not have failed but did. Should not have failed financially. I have a few hundred in my collection which were excellent, musically, but were financial disasters. When I hit an airpocket, they become personal.
I received one just last week and am taken away by it. Heroine by Kate Grom. It struck a note and I assume a very deep one as I took time to contact two of the people involved in the project. Stephanie Lambring co-authored three songs on the album and when I heard one of Stephanie’s own songs…
the process seemed automatic. What was it like working with Kate? Lambring used the phrase “like a breeze” and even emphasized it with an exclamation point. It should have been. Musically, they inhabit somewhat the same place.
An airpocket. I love this song. I love the voices and the production and the lyrics. In my ears, it is a gem. Does it have a chance? It should. Like I said… an airpocket, at least until the figures are in.
My life has been filled with them— Nick Holmes and Cowboy and Gypsy and so many more who should have gotten that break but didn’t. They comprise the vast percentage of my record collection. I have no Beatles nor Stones, only an occasional greatest hits album or compilation. I look back and wonder why I ever had over 10,000 albums but at one time I did. I had that Darrell Vickers personality which would not let me pass a record store without stepping in. I wasn’t a hoarder. I listened to 99% of my collection at least one time, though I admit to 1% getting away from me. One day I woke up and looked at one of the walls of records and asked myself if I thought I could listen to the collection front-to-back if I started that day and didn’t think I could. I started cleaning things out.
The first to go were the obvious. What the hell was I doing with the first Eagles album, for chrissakes! I hated it— well, let’s just say that I had heard it way too much. Three Eagles album, gone. I kept Desperado, the only one I deemed worthy. Marshall Tucker? I kept the first. The Allman Brothers Band? The first and Idlewild South. I had three of the first It’s a Beautiful Day albums and five copies of albums by Ratchell, a favorite lesser known band. There was no need for the waste.
It took me years to hone down the collection. I sold some but just because they were not worth the hassle of finding them new homes. The majority I gave away, starting with the easiest— the albums everyone was looking for— Beatles imports and Zombies albums and EPs. Next were the oddities and out-of-print standards— early Fats Domino to Rick(y) Nelson to Michael Nesmith. Next were the fastly disappearing— vinyl copies not scheduled for repressing, etc. There was a method to my madness. While all of this happened, I slowly let real collector’s items slip through my fingers— Duane Allman’s interview record (radio only), the Wishbone Ash live promo (originally released as radio only but eventually released as part of the Live Dates twofer, Big Star’s Third— promo only then and later released as Sister Lovers. I had quite a few, but I had an advantage. When those records hit the used record stores, the people who worked there knew what I wanted. They knew I wasn’t collecting for profits sake but had a genuine interest in the music and story of each artist.
You have to understand one thing about me other than the fact that I am somewhat of an idealist when it comes to music (depending upon mood and selection). I had a rule: If someone genuinely wanted something more than I did, I gave it to them. Or I did. One day, I gave a Cargoe album to a friend who claimed to be a huge fan. Not long after, I learned that he had given it away. That was when I added an addendum. If someone took an album and later was going to give it away, it had to come back to me. Having an extra Cargoe album has never been a problem for me. I can always find people who really want one for themselves.
So I sit here worrying about the chances of Kate Grom. And thinking about how very hard it is to get that break. I mean, I have a friend who just put out an exceptional album and he is frustrated because no one is listening. Have you even heard the new Jim of Seattle, Both the Planet Frank and the Chet Lambert Show? It is a creative monster and even if you don’t really like the format, you should at least give it a listen. This, my friends, is what a song can be when everything comes together.
And as I walked through those huge beautiful empty rooms in my dream, I missed the music. More than likely because the beam missed my head by inches.
Time for some…..
Notes….. Swear to God, every time I open my mouth regarding an artist or genre I end up eating words. I have not been overly enthusiastic about electronic pop music. You might even say that I have bad-mouthed it on occasion. So I get this link to the video below from friend Marisa Lee and sit down for a meal. Aby Wolf, in Minnesota Territory, put this video out recently and I have to say that I am impressed. It may just be her or maybe my ears are catching up. Time to rethink.
Delicate Steve, huh? I like it.
I’m not quite sure what the hell is going on here.
I have been a fan of The Lonely Wild for years.
New from The Bankesters:
Holy moly! Three box sets just announced from Be! which will be distributed by Bear Family are regional killers! Check out this from the State of Florida! Click here and be amazed!
Bridget Kearney‘s shot across the bow from her upcoming album, Won’t Let You Down. We all, of course, know her from the band Lake Street Drive.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.